DOWNEY — Tucked in one of the far back corners of Warren High School is a now well-known secret to most in the Downey school district – a fully functional and decked out kitchen, manned by students eager to hone their culinary skills.
These students (and more importantly, their food) have become an almost expected staple to several special events district and community wide. And as the Bears continue to advance their skills and increase their reputation, they’ve recently added a brand new, trendy tool to utilize: their very own food truck.
“It prepares kids that are interested into going into the hospitality industry,” said John Harris, Director of College and Career Readiness at DUSD. “The kids come away with a [ServSafe] certificate. They learn safe food handling, and beyond that John provides them with a lot of that understanding of how the business works.”
This is much in part to the work of Warren’s Culinary Instructor Johnny Zegarra, who possessed an impressive resume of education and in-field experience before arriving at Warren High School about six years ago.
“I’ve been cooking since I was 13; my first real job was when I was 15,” said Zegarra. “I went to Le Cordon Bleu, and after Le Cordon Bleu I went to Boca Raton, Florida and I was working at the Addison at Boca Raton Hotel…I came back to LA and I worked in Hollywood, Westwood, Downtown, Beverly Hills.”
Zegarra worked at a myriad of different restaurants, including an internship at the Water Grill, jobs at Citizen Smith, Oaks Gourmet, Napa Valley Grill, Spago, and Bottega Louie, as well as a stint as a prep cook at “Hell’s Kitchen” for its first two seasons.
When he was introduced to former Downey Unified School District Career Technical Education and Support Director Phil Davis, Zegarra says he was initially hesitant to take on the task of teaching a culinary art class at Warren. With a little persuasion, he eventually agreed to teach one class after school.
“As time went on, one [class] turned to two, two turned to three,” said Zegarra. “I was also going to Cal State LA at the time finishing my nutritional science degree. Right when I finished that the full time opening opened up here.”
Zegarra teaches Culinary Arts 1, which includes basic cooking, sanitation and safety, and cutting skills, along with sauces, stocks, and plates preparation, and Culinary Arts 2, which includes baking and pastries, as well as experience going out and providing food and dessert service to school district events.
Zegarra says he tries to model his classes after the way he was taught at Le Cordon Bleu.
“First I was taught the basic skills, then through those basic skills we built on them,” said Zegarra. “I try to give them as much experience as possible.”
And what better way to get that experience than on board an authentic food truck?
“I don’t know how we got it,” said Zegarra. “I was told by Phil Davis that his goal was for us to have a food truck…six years later he retires, and a week before he retires we get a food truck.”
The addition of the food truck has made life a bit easier for Zegarra and his students. Since they already have a kitchen to prep, much of their work on the truck boils down to finishing touches.
“Everything goes on there and we just take it,” said Zegarra. It makes it a lot better because I don’t have to precook things, have it warm in a warmer and then take it; I can just do it there.”
The truck includes a large refrigerator, a couple of under refrigerators, two commercial convection ovens, a griddle, a six-burner stove, warmers, prep table, three-compartment sink and sanitizer.
Zegarra says that he plans to eventually take students out with the truck into the community more often.
“What we basically use it for is district meetings, district events, parties,” said Zegarra. “We want to go to the Farmer’s Market on Saturday…we’re also going to start cooking for the staff on Thursdays and Fridays.”
More than adding to their culinary education and experience, however, Harris says that students gain other, important life skills.
“What the food truck does is not so much about food,” said Harris. “It’s about interacting with the public, working together under pressure, having a team environment… [at the Downey / Warren Game] for example they did a coffee service and a dessert service for all the VIP’s. I would say at any given time there was maybe 60 to 80 people there grabbing a dessert, a cup of coffee, interacting with each other, but they were interacting with the kids too.”
“We are really encouraging students to dream bigger and reach higher than what was possible before, and that’s exactly what they are doing. They’re really accepting the challenge and pursuing their dreams.”